All Elvis, all day, and so far, it's a hit

Satellite station plays the King 24/7

August 31, 2005|By Martin Miller | Martin Miller,LOS ANGELES TIMES

There are those who say pop-radio stations play the same set of songs over and over again and all sound alike - a statement that is both true and not true of Sirius Satellite Radio's Elvis Radio.

It's all Elvis Presley all the time, culled from a vast library of 2,700 songs but presented in a way listeners have never heard before - and one that may be a harbinger of radio's future.

Elvis Radio, one of more than 130 channels on Sirius, may be the first station to transform what is normally a short-lived publicity stunt into a full-time dial fixture. As such, the all-Elvis station is widely viewed as an early litmus test for the ultra-niching that may lie ahead in satellite and digital radio, which offers listeners hundreds of channel choices.

"When Sirius asked me if I wanted to program a channel committed solely to Elvis, it was a no-brainer," said Scott Lindy, a veteran of traditional radio and now Elvis Radio's programming director. "Everybody has an Elvis connection. I don't care who you are or where you're from, you know who Elvis is. This is no gimmick. We're not going away."

Broadcast daily from Presley's former home, the pop-culture mecca of Graceland, the one-note station celebrated its first anniversary this month, timed to coincide with Elvis Week, the 28th annual commemoration of Presley's death.

For the satellite-radio industry, Elvis Radio is part of a marketing strategy to get paying customers inside the tent. Although there's no hard data available on ratings or how many subscribers Sirius has gained through niche programming, observers see it as a smart experiment.

"It's the same thing cable television faces when they've got 400 channels to program," said Dick Bartley, who has a syndicated oldies show for ABC Radio Networks. "It's a fringe idea. Everything can't be mass appeal, and you've got to fill it with something."

Sirius began its commitment to resurrecting the Presley sound by negotiating its way inside the gates of Graceland, building a brand-new studio there and signing up about a half-dozen DJs consumed by the Elvis mystique or who knew the pop superstar personally. So if you want to know what Presley was thinking before he went on stage in Saginaw, Mich., in 1977, these are the guys to ask.

"I'm not bragging, but I'm an Elvis expert," said George Klein, one of the station's DJs. Presley was the best man at his wedding, and Klein served as a pallbearer at his friend's funeral. "I've got a world of information on Elvis."

The station's DJs are more than storytellers, they're stage performers, too, Lindy said. Their studio's huge window looks out on Graceland's main plaza, where hundreds of Presley fans look inside the "fishbowl" to watch the spinning of songs. In fact, a few of Graceland's 600,000 annual visitors are invited inside the studio to talk about their Presley moments and memories.

"We get people here from Japan, the Middle East, Europe and Africa who have made it a point in their travels to see the place that Elvis lived," Lindy said. "We recently had someone from Poland we put on the air and we had to find a translator."

The channel's regular play list is between 800 and 900 songs, which by way of comparison is more than double, and maybe triple, the play lists of most top-40 stations. Many of Elvis' songs have multiple versions - live, studio, even rehearsal takes. For instance, the station has 15 different cuts of "Hound Dog."

Although the station is proud of its rare treasures, it makes sure the big hits are frequently played for the average fan.

"The worst thing in radio is you don't want to lose a listener," said Klein, who had parts in several Presley movies. "If they go down the dial, it's hard to get them back."

Since the 1970s, a number of AM and FM stations across the country have dabbled in one-artist, all-the-time schemes by riding the play lists of such rock legends as the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. But these solo efforts, which rarely last more than several weeks, are typically launched to draw attention to a station as it prepares to switch from format A to format B.

Satellite channels, of course, aren't under the same commercial constraints as a terrestrial station. They don't have to attract advertisers, just consumers willing to pay a monthly subscription fee of $10 to $13 for a variety of commercial-free music. And for that purpose, niche stations just might work.

Between Sirius and its main satellite competitor, XM Radio, the companies claim some 7 million subscribers. That figure is expected to rise considerably in the coming years as satellite technology improves and its receivers become common options in automobiles.

"If you put enough ultra-niche channels together, instead of just generic-sounding '70s music or '90s music, you'll attract passionate fans," said Tom Taylor, editor of the trade publication Inside Radio. "That's what satellite has got to do."

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